Top-10 Unfortunate F1 Driver Departures (last 5 years)
It’s understandable that in Formula Ones the driver turn-over is quite a big part of it. Each year, new up-and-coming drivers try their luck at leaving their mark in the sport to make a career out of it while those who have been with the sport for a number of years leave for other series or to retire.
Then occasionally, we have drivers leave suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes before they really had a chance to shine in the sport. The comebacks of drivers like Kimi Räikkönen and Kamui Kobayashi got me thinking about the drivers who had a shot at the sport but then had it snagged away from them. These are my picks from the past 5 years of drivers whose exits made me a little sad or were somehow regrettable.
If you’ve looked at some of my past lists, you’ll notice a lot of familiar names here. On with the list!
- Teams driven for: Arrows, Jaguar, McLaren, Sauber, Hispania
- Reason for departure: HRT bankruptcy
I’ve given Pedro a bit of a hard time by placing him in the Worst F1 Drivers Bottom-10 some while back. My opinion hasn’t really changed as far as his positioning on the list is concerned but you may have gathered that I included him somewhat begrudgingly. In De La Rosa’s case, it’s not that I didn’t feel that it was Pedro’s time to go (the man debuted in 1999 for crying out loud) but I just feel he didn’t deserve to go out the way he did.
After years of on-again-off-again driving and mostly being a bench-warmer as a McLaren test driver, De La Rosa got his second big chance to race at the new Sauber team in 2010. And though he got off to a good start, once the car was up to snuff, he was brutally beat by his team-mate Kamui Kobayashi in sheer race performance. De La Rosa’s contribution to the team surely wasn’t a waste. In fact, the grizzled F1 vet probably helped Sauber a great deal after their initial troubles and it would have been big of him to step down to let the young guns have a shot.
But nope, Pedro tried grabbing for glory in the most backwards way possible by signing up to the Hispania Racing Team for the 2012 season, where he was unable to do much good. Despite everything, Pedro cheerfully announced that he was also signed to HRT for the 2013 season. He was obviously in for a big shock (not likely) when the team folded at the end of the 2012 season. De La Rosa was hired by Ferrari as a test driver last season, but since then nothing’s been heard from him. Pedro is a man not unlike Kimi Räikkönen in temperament, he just wants to race. However, just like Rubens Barrichello, he probably stuck around for much longer than he should have and didn’t even get to go out on a high, such as in 2006 when he subbed for Juan Pablo Montoya for the rest of the season and actually achieved one podium finish.
- Teams driven for: Benetton, Ferrari, Mercedes
- Reason for departure: Flubbed comeback
Much like Pedro De La Rosa, I do feel Schumi retired when he ought to have retired, with seven championships under his belt. However, it’s understandable that Mercedes GP wanted a veteran driver to help develop their car and the fact that team-principal Ross Brawn was such good friends with Schumi probably didn’t hurt his chances. This is yet again a situation where I felt Schumi didn’t deserve to go out the way he did.
Now again, Schumi is clearly someone who loves to race. I have a love/hate relationship with him. I hated how dominant he was during his Ferrari days because he was always going up against the Finnish drivers at McLaren. And while his dominance brought some monotony to the seasons, his accomplishments are still awe-inspiring. Therefore, I honestly didn’t get any pleasure seeing Schumi struggling to give younger drivers a run for their money after being away for four years. Schumi competed for a rather lowly (by his standards) 9th and 8th place in the drivers’ standing.
His final, 2012 season at Mercedes was also a little underwhelming. Schumi landed 13th in the standings, but I felt a little happy when he actually did finish on the podium once that year, finishing third in the Valencian GP alongside the two drivers that followed him to Ferrari, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso. Schumacher is still in a coma, following the skiing accident from Christmas, but is finally showing signs of recovery. Much like his career, I don’t want Schumi to go out this way.
- Teams driven for: Renault/Lotus, Caterham
- Reason for departure: Lack of sponsorship money (also, dude, Caterham)
In 2010, Petrov became the first ever Russian F1 driver. He definitely had a rough time on his rookie season at Renault, being paired with the talented Lone Pole, Robert Kubica. Kubica landed a podium finish twice while Petrov’s best result was a 6th place in the very final race of the season and a 13th in the standings at the end of the season.
However when the Lotus-Renault outfit got into action the following year, Petrov was giving it his all from the very start. The first race of the season he achieved his only podium to date. He scored semi-regularly during what was a really weak season for his team over-all and managed to land 10th in the standings by the end of the season. However in 2012, Lotus decided to bank on Romain Grosjean (recent GP2 champion) and Kimi Räikkönen, both of whom were making their comeback to the sport. Petrov was suddenly out of a job and at the last second secured a drive at Caterham as Heikki Kovalainen’s team-mate (replacing Jarno Trulli, literally, at the last minute).
Unfortunately, Petrov – like a lot of other drivers on this list – had to experience the ruining effect of the back-lot teams first hand. Caterham struggled to give their arch-nemesis Marussia a run for their money in the 2012 season and only beat them in the standings by the skin of their teeth. In the very final race of 2012, Petrov finished 11th, coming closer than any prior Caterham driver to actually scoring points. That sadly, wasn’t enough of an incentive for Caterham to rehire him. Both Vitaly and Kovalainen got kicked out and replaced by new drivers with fat sponsorship deals the next season and Petrov slumped out of the F1 spotlight.
This was really sad. Even though Petrov’s first two seasons weren’t great, he was clearly on an upwards trend when he was still driving for Renault/Lotus. Unfortunately, like Heikki, Petrov’s rep in the sport took a kick in the teeth. Vitaly could have had a serviceable career in F1 but he put his money on the wrong, green pony.
- Teams driven for: Toro Rosso
- Reason for departure: Disagreements with his employer
Jaime Alguersuari debuted as the youngest F1 driver back in 2009, replacing the extremely mediocre Sebastien Bourdais. Admittedly, Toro Rosso is not the best middle-tier team around, but a car that will score semi-regularly given the chance. Alguersuari’s rookie half-season wasn’t anything to write home about and his second season was also none too flattering, with him scoring three times while his team-mate, Sebastien Buemi, scored a total of five times.
However, things were starting to look up in 2011. Both Buemi and Alguersuari were finally scoring semi-consistently and Jaime was even able to outperform his team-mate on occasion. Toro Rosso was giving Sauber a run for their money and landed only three points shy of them in the standings at the end of the season. However, after two and a half years, Toro Rosso decided they wanted to change up their driver programme and fired both of their drivers.
I don’t perhaps feel as bad about Alguersuari falling out of the sport as I do about his team-mate, but what I can’t understand is a team showing the door to a driver who was clearly on his way to becoming a better race-car driver. Inevitably, it was apparently Alguersuari’s less than friendly relationship with his team that soured their partnership. Since there weren’t any big driver shifts in 2012, Jaime was left without a drive and although he did continue to be active in F1 as Pirelli’s test-driver. He is currently trying to get a seat at the new Formula E series, so his comeback may still happen.
- Teams driven for: Renault, McLaren, Lotus/Caterham, Lotus
- Reason for departure: Lack of sponsorship money + Failed Lotus Stint
Kovalainen was a driver who rose to the top way too quickly. After a decent rookie season, he got the chance of a lifetime to take over for Fernando Alonso who returned to Renault for the 2008 season. Kovalainen was probably not ready to play with the big boys yet, but can you really blame him for wanting to drive for the second best team on the grid? Heikki’s stint at McLaren started promisingly enough with two podiums, one from a race victory. But Heikki was also clearly the number-2 driver of the team, behind Lewis Hamilton, and this began to eat away at his motivation when his second season didn’t go so splendidly. Heikki wasn’t allowed to be himself and the team was also doing badly that season.
Small wonder that Heikki would jump at the chance of a fresh start in a completely new team in 2010. And that team was Lotus, later Caterham. If you recall Heikki’s interviews from the start of the Lotus/Caterham days, he was jumping with joy to be able to re-establish himself in the sport. And he kept an up-beat attitude even after the car underperformed (unlike team-mate Jarno Trulli whose ego crumbled completely). Sadly, Heikki should have probably opted for a better team but instead remained committed to the Caterham. This finally cost him when he was let go at the end of the 2012 season, along with his team-mate because the team could no longer pay him his salary and because Heikki himself had no serious sponsorship money to back him up. Part of the way into 2013, Heikki did eventually get a test driver’s position at Caterham.
Heikki’s final shot of glory were the last two races of 2013 where he substituted for Kimi Räikkönen who left Lotus (former Renault) due to a bad back requiring surgery, a signed Ferrari deal and unpaid wages. Heikki managed a lowly 14th place in both races, effectively ruining his one chance to improve his resumé. I still feel bad that Heikki blew his one chance to prove his worth as a race driver but the ugly truth is that he should maybe look to other series, maybe rebuild his rep and try again. Right now though, Heikki’s F1 career seems to be over.
- Teams driven for: Toro Rosso
- Reason for departure: Uneven performance
I don’t envy this sympathetic Swiss driver. After Sebastian Vettel wowed audiences by driving the Junior Red Bull team to its first and only race victory in 2008, Buemi had big shoes to fill when he took Vettel’s place in TR as the young German went on to replace David Coulthart at Red Bull. Against Vettel’s dynamite performance, Toro Rosso’s 2009 season was quite pathetic, resulting in the firing of Sebastien Bourdais half-way through the season.
Buemi performed somewhat better in 2010 and just like his team-mate Alguersuari, was finally scoring semi-regularly in 2011. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough for Red Bull who decided to replace both drivers for the 2012 season.
Buemi’s situation and relationship with Red Bull was much better than Alguersuari’s. Not only has Swiss Seb kept himself active in the motorsports circles outside F1, he’s also retained the position of F1 test-driver. Although, just as before, Buemi got sidelined by Daniel Ricciardo when the team looked for a replacement to Mark Webber. Buemi was another serviceable race-driver, so I wouldn’t mind him coming back in the future. However, with F1’s terrible financial situation, that might not be possible without a huge sponsorship package.
- Teams driven for: Jordan, Toyota, Virgin/Marussia
- Reason for departure: Lack of sponsorship money (also, dude, Marussia)
Most sympathetic of show? Yes. Timo Glock was a good, decently reliable driver. On his good days, he even competed for podiums. Glock completed the unlikely driver duo of Glock and Trulli at Toyota, when the Japanese constructor was still part of the sport. Glock actually did some good for the sport even when he was forced to sit out on the three last races of 2009 due to a leg injury, since it gave chance for Kamui Kobayashi to make his excellent F1 debut.
Unfortunately, the trio of Trulli, Glock and Kobayashi found themselves out of work at the end of the season, when Toyota announced their retirement from F1 despite racing their best season ever (a 5th in the constructors’ standings). The former Team Toyota drivers went their separate ways. Trulli got to spend a miserable two years at Lotus/Caterham while Kamui finally blossomed into a serious driver at the newly formed Sauber team. Glock, much like Trulli, started fresh with the 2010 debutant team Virgin, renamed Marussia the next season.
Needless to say what happened. The back-lot teams are positively disastrous for established drivers like Glock who are stuck driving at them for any length of time. After three miserable seasons, Glock bid adieu to the terrible team to race for Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series last year, where he landed 9th. Glock however, left on probably the second most amicable grounds after Kovalainen and what I liked about Glock is that he’s never shown a great ego. I really wish the guy could maybe come back, but his chances, much like other former multiple-season runners, seems unlikely in the face F1’s financial troubles.
- Teams driven for: Prost, Sauber, Jordan, Williams, BMW, Renault
- Reasons for departure: Ousted in favour of Bruno Senna
Tough-luck Nick as I like to call him has had his ups and downs. This German driver got his start all the way back in 2000 when drove for the Prost team during its final lackluster season. What followed was an encouraging second season at Sauber where he managed a podium finish, even up-staging his team-mate Kimi Räikkönen. However, Räikkönen went off to drive for McLaren immediately the following season while Nick was left behind to waste his time at Sauber scoring only occasionally and struggling to make the Top-10 in the constructor’s championship.
Nick also made an ill-fated jump to the Jordan team in 2004, leading to his worst standing in the championship since his debut season. The following season however, things looked up for Nick when he joined the BMW-Williams outfit as Mark Webber’s team-mate. Just as with Sauber, Nick achieved a podium on his first season, but for reasons unknown was not allowed to finish the season when Williams wanted to give some drive time to F1 nobody Antonio Pizzonia. Also, 2005 was of course the year when Williams and BMW went their separate ways. Nick followed the German car company and, ironically, returned to the Sauber team, now flying the BMW colours. The next two seasons were, however, some of Nick’s finest, with BMW scoring consistently and Nick achieving a good bunch of podiums.
However, 2009 was a terrible season for BMW. They fell out of the Top-5 in the constructors’ championship with both Nick and his talented team-mate Robert Kubica also out of the Top-10 drivers’ standings. BMW then pulled out of F1 and, suddenly, Nick was out of a job. Sauber didn’t completely forget about Nick though. The following season, the reformed team raced with Pedro De La Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi. After it was becoming painfully evident that Kamui was scoring most of the team’s points, Nick was hired to finish the season in Pedro’s stead. Following a former team-mate’s injury (wait for it), Nick landed himself the second seat at Renault in 2011, but half-way through the season was puzzlingly let go in favour of a younger driver Bruno Senna.
Now admittedly, Heidfeld is no spring chicken, but he’s clearly a good race driver and someone who will bring home points on a half-decent car. I felt sorry for Nick in that his career seemed to hit one pot-hole after the next. After wasting the start of his career in the mediocre Sauber outfit, he stumbled on Jordan. And when it looked he had a career with BMW, the team folded unexpectedly. Even though he was clearly a sought-after replacement, no team wanted to give him a chance to at least drive a full season. And being replaced by a talentless nobody like Senna just really sucks. Heidfeld nearly took Renault to court over being fired, but the fact that the disagreement was settled without court proceedings might have been because he knew that the team was already in financial trouble.
Nick continues to compete in other motorsport series and it’s not inconceivable of him to come back. It’s just a shame no-one seems to value a driver who can actually finish on podiums.
2. Mark Webber
- Teams: Minardi, Jaguar, Williams, Red Bull
- Reason for departure: Fed up with Red Bull
It probably goes without saying that I was really disappointed with Mark Webber’s exit from the sport. Career, points-scoring and podium finish wise – he’s probably one of the most succesful drivers of recent history and was even in the running for the championship several times. This Australian bloke was also made of pure talent, as demonstrated when he already took points in his very first F1 race, driving the worst car on the lot: Minardi.
After some mediocre years at the under-powered Jaguar and the post-BMW Williams teams, Webber joined the reformed Jaguar, now called Red Bull, joining ex-McLaren driver David Coulthart. 2007 was an uneven season, but it brought Webber his second podium finish. However, at this point the team was still struggling with performance and Webber was just trying his darnest to score in each race.
2009 was a game changing year for the team. The talented Toro Rosso driver, Sebastian Vettel, became Webber’s team-mate and suddenly the Red Bulls and the brand-new Brawn GP team were competing for the championship, as McLaren and Ferrari struggled to even score consistently that year. Webber and Vettel started to achieve podiums at a regular rate and Webber was in the Top-5 of the driver’s championship three years in a row. Unfortunately, much like David Coulthart or Rubens Barrichello, Webber’s successes were eclipsed by those of his young team-mate. Vettel lost the 2009 championship and then won by the skin of his teeth in 2010. Afterwards, Vettel was regularly in the running while Webber was just padding the team’s score.
Things finally hit an ugly turn in 2013 in Malaysia. Webber was driving to an almost certain race victory when he suddenly was passed by Vettel, despite team orders not to do so. This was the last straw for Webber who had felt like he was being treated as a number-2 driver in the team. I think Webber was too early to leave the sport (especially considering that he finished 3rd in the standings at the end of the year), but it’s clear that he was no longer happy with the team. Once his temper has cooled, I hope to see the Webbster drive in F1 once more – because he’s clearly still has a lot to offer.
1. Robert Kubica
- Teams: BMW, Renault
- Reason for departure: Rally accident and resultant arm injury
There is simply no other driver whose premature exit saddened me more than that of the Lone Pole. Robert Kubica made his debut at the end of the 2006 season, when he replaced major F1 dick-head Jacques Villeneuve at BMW. After a disqualification in his first race and a lowly 12th in his second, Robert completely took everyone by surprise and landed a podium finish in his third race as a replacement driver.
The next season, Kubica scored evenly and was regularly in the top-5 finishers for most races, though sadly didn’t score any podiums. In 2008, Kubica had the most succesful year of his F1 career with seven podiums, a race victory in Canada and 4th place in the championship standings at the end of the year. Even during the extremely difficult 2009 season, Kubica did manage a podium finish at the end of the season. Like his team-mate, Heidfeld, Kubica was out of a job when BMW pulled out of the sport at the end of that year.
However, Kubica immediately found a spot at Renault, which was out of drivers following the Crashgate scandal, Fernando Alonso leaving for Ferrari and Romain Grosjean having an underwhelming opening half-season. In 2010, Kubica really pulled the weight of the troubled team with 3 podium finishes and an 8th position in the championship at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, just before the start of the 2011 season, Kubica was in a serious Rally accident. Both his legs and his arm were severely damaged and Renault had to speedily find a replacement (the saga of which is laid out in the previous entries). Kubica held out hope that he would still return, but his leg injuries took the entire season’s length to recover, and he sadly injured himself again later that year by slipping on some ice. I also held out hope for much of 2012, but eventually Kubica announced that due to the severity of his arm-injury, he could no longer stand the strain of driving a Formula One car. Kubica continues to be a success outside F1s, winning the WRC-2 championship and coming in first in last year’s European Rally Championship. So at least he’s still doing what he’s good at. It’s just a crying shame that his career in F1 was snubbed so soon.